Friday, April 29, 2011 at 06:52AM
National Book Foundation

Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems        

By Mark Doty

Original and Current Publisher: Harper Perennial

Kiki Petrosino writes:

Long ago in poetry workshop, a professor assigned us the task of listing ten original images.  This was homework: come up with ten units of language that you think fit the definition of image.  Our professor wanted to see who, in the class, was a gifted builder.  We were all disappointed, of course.  My list came back with a slash through every entry, and question marks, besides.  Only one “true” image emerged from the exercise, and if I’m not mistaken, our professor gave it to us.  It had to do with a red bandanna tied to a wooden post, and I can still see it.

Constructing imagery in a poem is more demanding than you think.  It’s not enough simply to point at the world of the senses by saying “I hear” or “I see.”  A well-chosen image must somehow embody the act of perception.  Images are the tiny conveyors that transmit meaning in a poem, because it’s through the senses that ideas—and language—take hold of the imagination.  In his 1997 essay, “Souls on Ice,” Mark Doty writes, “Sometimes it seems to me as if metaphor were the advance guard of the mind; something in us reaches out, into the landscape in front of us, looking for the right vessel, the right vehicle, for whatever will serve.”

This notion is one key to understanding Doty’s poetics.  In Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems, we find a voice that continually asserts its devotion to the pursuit of image-making.  This volume, for which Doty won the NBA in 2008, gathers work from seven prior collections, as well as selections from a newer project, Theories and Apparitions.  Taken as a whole, the volume provides a marvelous introduction for those readers previously unfamiliar with this attentive, compelling lyric presence.  The poems draw much of their energy from the rigor of Doty’s metaphors, rooted as they are in precisely drawn images of “the landscape in front of us.”

I keep returning to the poem, “Chanteuse” (from Doty’s 1993 collection, My Alexandria), as particularly emblematic of Doty’s mastery of both image and metaphor.  This poem proceeds as a series of tightly-constructed tercets with a lustrous syllabic sheen (most lines are between nine and twelve syllables, which lends a measured, even quality to each unit of sound).  At the same time, the verse is awash in images that appeal to every bodily sense, and the accumulation of these images takes us on a rhapsodic journey.  This is an ode to the city of Boston, but Doty enfolds a myriad of other loves into this theme.  Take these lines from early in the piece:

             Jots of color resolve: massive parasols
            above a glimmering pond, the transit
            of almost translucent swans.  Brilliant bits

            —jewels?  slices of sugared fruit?—bloom
            into a clutch of skirts on the bridge
            above the summer boaters.  His city’s essence:

            all the hues of chintzes or makeup
            or Italian ices, all the sheen artifice
            is capable of.  Our city’s lavish paintbox.

In these stanzas, Doty’s speaker describes a Prendergast painting of Boston’s Public Garden, but he also treats us to a veritable Eden of sights and sounds.  Note the kinetic qualities conveyed by “jots of color,” the swift “transit / of almost translucent swans,” and the slower “bloom” of the skirted figures on the bridge.  Even the “slices of sugared fruit” seem to pass over the tongue, thanks to the almost granular consonant shift that softens “slices” into “sugared.”  It took me more than one reading to realize that there aren’t any colors actually named in these early stanzas—I’d been seeing all kinds of things in my mind’s eye, but not colors. Doty uses his “lavish paintbox” with discernment here, making for us a portrait of light.  We see “brilliant bits” of “almost” translucence, the traffic of “hues,” if not yet the hues themselves.  The language of this poem dazzles with an evocative imagerial “sheen” that transports us to a place of wonder.

When the poem moves to the “intimate interiors” of personal memory, the city’s magic takes on the physicality of an earthly muse.  The “chanteuse” is a “beautiful black drag queen,” whose voice unfolds themes of love that animate the poet’s remembered cityscape.  Now it’s the singer’s “sparkling ankle shoes” which “glimmer” in the space opened by the dual work of writing and remembrance.  She effectively becomes the swan that moves between the poet’s present and his past.  And it’s with this extended image of the chanteuse that Doty sweeps us into the larger concern that’s brought the whole poem into being: the painful divide between the seeming artifice of memory and the ephemeral nature of immediate, lived experience.  The vitality of Doty’s initial images prepares us for more expansive, philosophical statements at poem’s end:

            As she invented herself, memory revises
            and restores her, and the moment   
            she sang.  I think we were perfected,

            when we became her audience,
            and maybe from that moment on
            it didn’t matter so much exactly

            what would become of us.

This shift in diction comes to us like a rest within a musical score.  It’s a move that effectively grounds Doty’s metaphors within a larger lyric investigation and brings us back to the poet’s mind and heart.  As Doty remarks in “Souls on Ice,” descriptive details in poems “aren't ‘neutral,’ though they might pretend to be, but instead suggest a point of view, a stance toward what is being seen.”          

Kiki Petrosino is the author of Fort Red Border (Sarabande, 2009). She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her poems have appeared in FENCE, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Louisville. (Photo credit: Philip Miller)                                          

Poetry Finalists that Year:

Poetry Judges that Year: Robert Pinsky, Mary Jo Bang, Kimiko Hahn, Tony Hoagland, Marilyn Nelson

The Year in Literature:  

Other Information:

Doty reading at the 2008 National Book Award Finalists Reading

Doty accepts the 2008 National Book Award for Poetry for Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems


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